A convoy of South Bay truckers and their big rigs descended on the Internal Revenue Service offices at the downtown Federal Building late last week to call attention to their employment status and working conditions as part of an ongoing labor dispute with a Carson distributing firm and dozens of other Los Angeles Harbor-area trucking companies.
Truck cabs slowly circled the Federal Building for an hour Friday afternoon, blasting their horns in a chorus and attracting stares as downtown traffic made its weekend exodus.
Police put the number at 30 cabs, but officials representing the drivers said it was closer to 100. No problems were reported.
The truckers are demanding that H&M Terminals Transport Inc. of Carson and other companies recognize them as employees to make them eligible for benefits.
The drivers allege that H&M Terminals and other companies deduct money from their paychecks for workers' compensation and liability insurance. But because the companies list them as independent contractors, the workers are not eligible to collect those benefits.
Ernie Nevarez, an accountant who works as a consultant for the union, said the companies list the truckers as independent contractors to avoid paying federal payroll taxes, such as unemployment and Social Security.
Independent truckers are responsible for moving about 25% of the cargo shipped in the state, trucking officials said.
"What we want is for the IRS to enforce its own laws," Nevarez said. "These companies are cheating the government out of millions and millions of dollars."
The IRS, the truckers say, has been investigating dozens of harbor-area trucking companies for alleged tax evasion since as early as 1989.
The California Trucking Assn., a 2,500-member statewide trade group that represents most of the harbor-area firms, confirmed last week that the IRS is auditing its harbor-area members for possible tax violations. But IRS officials in Laguna Niguel, whose jurisdiction includes the harbor area, would neither confirm nor deny that such audits are taking place.
The truckers, members of the Waterfront Rail Truckers Union, which is not certified as a labor union, said the IRS has dragged its feet in determining their employment status with the Carson firm and more than 100 other trucking companies in the harbor area.
"It doesn't do us any good if we have to wait 10 years," said Paul Galis, a union spokesman. "We need help and we need help now. These people are literally starving."
The truckers have been on strike at H&M Terminals since Aug. 10 in an effort to expose what they called exploitative labor practices. State law requires that truckers drive no more than 80 hours a week, but the Carson firm keeps its drivers behind the wheel for as many as 120 hours a week, the truckers group said.
Officials with the company and its New Jersey-based parent firm, H&M International Transportation Inc., have declined repeated interview requests.
The truckers' designation as independent contractors has also prevented the union from obtaining certification from the National Labor Relations Board, waterfront officials said.
Joel Anderson, vice president of the California Trucking Assn., said most of the companies use independent contractors to stay competitive.
"It's a fact of life," Anderson said. "Market conditions have driven out companies that had their own employees, trucks and equipment. . . . We're not the bad guys. We're people who have a function to perform of moving containers from one place to another in an extremely risky environment."
Using independent contractors shifts capital expenses and liability costs from the company to the trucker, Anderson said.
Outside the Federal Building on Friday, trucker Freddy Garcia, 31, of Los Angeles said the companies he has worked for have failed to pay him health benefits. Garcia said he has no health insurance for himself, his wife or his month-old daughter. He depended on public assistance to pay the medical bills when his daughter was born.
"If you work without benefits, you don't have any money to take care of your kids," Garcia said.